Rat Tally is the project of singer-songwriter Addy Harris, who is based in Chicago but also has roots in Boston and Los Angeles. After emerging in 2019 with her self-released When You Wake Up EP, Harris returned in January 2021 with the single ‘Shrug’ and the announcement of her signing to 6131 Records, which has launched artists such as Julien Baker and Katie Malco. On Friday, the label released Rat Tally’s debut full-length, In My Car, which exists in a similar lane of pensive indie rock but also highlights Harris’ unique knack for melody and evocative lyricism. Produced by Max Grazier, the album feels equally lived-in and reflective, speaking in metaphor as much as it addresses its subjects directly. The person Harris confronts more than anyone is herself: ‘Longshot’ opens the record with the image of her returning from a show, only to stare at the wall and “catch my thoughts but they’re all multiplying/ Like dust kicked off from the floor/ They spiral out and under the door/ Then float up and start to stick to the ceiling.” They never really stop spinning, but Harris’ vision is both sharp and wide-reaching as she untangles them.
We caught up with Addy Harris for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the places she’s lived, her relationship to songwriting, the experiences that informed In My Car, and more.
You reference many of the cities you’ve lived in on the album: Chicago, Boston, LA, Colorado. Can you talk about what each of these places means to you, and how they all relate to your idea of home?
I moved around a lot growing up, so I lived in a lot of those places with my family. Boston, that’s where I went to school and met the majority of my friends and the people that I love. And Colorado, I went to high school in Denver. And LA is where I moved after school. I lived there for a couple years, and I hated it. But in general, the places that I’ve lived and the people that I’ve met there have really shaped me. I’ve done a lot of growing in each of those places and growing in different ways, and they’re all special to me.
I think I really built myself and built my life in Boston, and moving to LA was a really big life decision. I wasn’t prepared, I think, for being so far away from my support system – not just friends, but family. And while I was living there, COVID happened. I had only been there for like a year and a half and then the pandemic hit, so it was a very solitary experience. I was really depressed. From moving around so much, I’d say that home is wherever my family is, wherever my friends are. And it was really hard for me in LA to create a home for myself when those people weren’t around.
‘Mount Auburn Cemetery’, at first, seems more purely descriptive than some of the other songs, but then it naturally turns into something deeply personal. What time in your life are you referring to there?
I wrote that song while I was in LA. I’m kind of referring to just my time in Boston, and that time in your life where you’re a young adult, and there’s this hope that even if you’re not your happiest now, you have your whole life ahead of you. And you’re still kind of holding on to that hope, and you still have this freedom to choose who you want to be. I love that song. Like you said, it’s very purely descriptive. I feel like I’m really trying to highlight the place and not just reference it. I’m kind of paying my respects to it, I think, in a way.
I already knew I wanted to ask you about this song, and then I went on Twitter and I saw that the official account for Mount Auburn Cemetery shared it?
I know! [laughs] They just tweeted about it. I was like, “How would they even know?” It was just great. Like, who works there who could possibly know that this song exists? But that was really special. It felt better than getting a Pitchfork review.
I was really struck by the line, “We’d climb the tower and look from the top/ Just like how I still feel myself at twenty climbing through me.” I don’t think this feeling of climbing through yourself ever goes away as you grow up, but that’s quite a romantic and poetic way of putting it.
Yeah, I love that. That’s one of my favourite lines on the whole album. Before you’re really an adult, I thought getting older was going to be sort of this natural process where I just suddenly feel like an adult at a certain point. And that’s just not the way it is. We’re still ourselves, all those different ages.
I feel like there’s a misconception that our generation tends to romanticize sadness or this searching for self, but there are moments on this album that are just raw in their honesty, like ‘Prettier’ and ‘Phone’. You’re just portraying your experience – there’s nothing romantic about it, necessarily. But listening to ‘Prettier’, I wonder if it’s maybe ingrained in us to aestheticize melancholy as something that can be not just beautiful, but beautifying.
Yeah. I hope that the songs came off honest, very much about the experience. I’m really constantly concerned about romanticizing those kinds of things and romanticizing depression. I think it can be exploitative and it can become dangerous to do those things. But just from my experience, you find yourself more comfortable being depressed than to push through it. I think it does really become a part of you, and romanticizing that makes it easier sometimes. But I really tried to be careful, and make it more nostalgic and melancholy than romanticizing being depressed.
Do you think that’s what drew you to songwriting in the first place, this desire to lay those feelings down? What has the relationship between writing and mental health been like for you?
I feel like it’s the only place that I can be completely honest, both to whoever’s listening and to myself. I think that especially through writing this album, I’ve worked through a lot of shit. [laughs] It’s my way of looking back on things and reflecting and trying to make sense of it. And for whatever reason, sometimes saying things through a song is easier than saying them outright to someone, or even your therapist. I mean, I’d say the reason I started and the reason I do it is for mental health purposes.
Over time, have you found that it’s sometimes important to separate those things?
I think it’s a balance now. Because as I got older, and especially over the past few years, songwriting, the art of it, is something that fascinates me and something that I’m really passionate about. I think there needs to be a healthy distance, but for now, I am sort of just writing about my own experience.
When did you realize songwriting was something you were passionate about?
I think in college, probably – I just was exposed to a lot more music than I had ever listened to, different genres. And just seeing the ways that other people and my friends were passionate about music and their crafts, I really started to dig into what I thought made a good song and the songs that I love, all the parts of it. Especially with lyric writing and melody writing – I could talk about that all day. But I definitely feel like I became more of a writer then.
What kind of things excite you about lyric writing and melody writing right now?
I’m really into literary devices. I’m really into alliteration, I think it’s very present on the album. I’m really into different kinds of rhyme, I really love internal rhyme and manipulating those things to kind of stray a little bit away from traditional rhyme schemes. But those things are the things that make people remember a song or remember lyrics, and they don’t even know it, you know? I just think it’s cool.
When you’re listening to music, do you tend to pay close attention and analyze those elements?
Yeah, I’m a repeat listener. I’ll listen to a song a million times if I like it. And through that, through listening to a song over and over again, I’ll start to analyze lyrics. I mean, I’m not highlighting stuff. [laughs] But there are songs and lines and the way that people rhyme that I try to make note of, to see if I could use it in something.
There are a lot of songs on In My Car that touch on mental health and how it can complicate romantic relationships, but you also mention your friends and your family, your sister specifically. I feel like those people are kind of at the periphery of the album, but you can feel their presence. Do you know how they feel about the album? Did you feel the need to reach out to anyone before including them?
Yeah, a lot of my friends, especially my sister, have heard a lot of those songs before they came out. I don’t know, they seem to like it, I think. [laughs] My sister really loves ‘Prettier’, and she loves ‘Phone’, obviously, because she’s in it. But there are people who I’ve written those songs about that, you know, aren’t the nicest songs, but we’ve had conversations about it. And I think, to them, it’s still special, that we had a friendship or a relationship and parts of it are encapsulated in certain songs. It’s nice to get those blessings from people.
Was that a new thing for you, to have those conversations?
Yeah. It was new. It’s always nerve-racking, you know? Because obviously, when you’re writing from your own experience, I think other people are always involved. But the same way that I wrote those songs to reflect, I think other people might relate to them too. But overall, it went well. There’s no hard feelings.
The song ‘Phone’ relates to what you were saying earlier about your experience being in LA during the pandemic. If you’re comfortable sharing, how do personally stay close to the people care about that may be physically distant – or if there’s any kind of barrier, be it physical or not?
I mean, so many of my friendships are long-distance now. And obviously, just utilizing the tools that we do have, like FaceTime and texting or whatever. But I think the biggest thing that I learned was sometimes, like in ‘Phone’, for example, it feels like you’re kind of just sitting there and nobody is contacting you, and it feels like nobody cares. And that people are so far away that you’re not really part of each other’s lives anymore. And your first instinct is to just feel like shit about yourself, you know? But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that if you’re feeling that way, you can be the one to reach out. You don’t have to wait for people. Because there’s a good chance they’re feeling the same thing. I think everyone over the past couple years has experienced some really intense isolation, and sometimes it’s hard to get past that first feeling of anxiety to reach out to people. But I try to do the best I can. Sometimes there’s also friends that you don’t speak to for a really long time, but it doesn’t matter and you can talk a year later and it’s totally normal. But you have to put in an effort into relationships, especially the long distance ones – try to reach out.
The production on the album is generally pretty spare, but there are these beautiful flourishes that stood out to me, like the strings that rush in when you sing “It reminds me of a fever” on the title track or the spacey synth sound on ‘Looking for You’. Even the guest vocals on the album feel very deliberate in their placement. How intentional were you about these kinds of choices?
For certain songs, it was more deliberate. ‘Looking for You’ was an interesting song, because it was the only song that we recorded that we didn’t have a demo of any production and kind of built it while we’re recording it. But the strings, for example – I play the cello, so I was able to write all the string parts, and those were very deliberate. I really tried, especially with ‘In My Car’, I tried to highlight a lot of those lines with strings. And in ‘Prettier’, too. I love those string parts, I’m really proud of that. And Max, my producer, does so much on the record. But it’s all pretty calculated. I’d say we do use it sparingly, only to really highlight lines in a song. I didn’t want it to sound overproduced. I was really worried about ‘Mount Auburn Cemetary’, actually, the balance of having nature sounds and the fact that there’s no drums – it is kind of stripped-down, I didn’t want it to be overproduced, but I wanted there to be other elements to kind of put you in that world.
What’s the most valuable lesson you feel you’ve learned over the past couple of years?
It’s okay to fail, in whatever way that may be. Failing in terms of showing up for yourself or for other people. It’s okay to feel like you made the wrong decision, and to change it. And also, to take accountability for any shitty behaviour or the way that you treated people – the way that I treated people. I keep saying that writing this album and reflecting on everything kind of made me a better person. But yeah, it’s okay to fail. You can try again – or do something different.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.